I STOOD in the middle of the Islamic section of the Campo da Boa Esperança cemetery in Brasilia last Friday and looked for my father’s grave. My cousin Yasser was visiting from Saudi Arabia and he wanted to pray for “Uncle Mohamed” as he put it.
Tomorrow, December 2, will be the one year anniversary of his passing. I still remember the day we buried my dad: It was raining like mad and there were small rivers of mud as we placed his cotton-wrapped body into a hole in the ground and workers sealed it off with a concrete slab on top.
But now a year later I couldn’t remember exactly where we had placed him. I walked around the other grave markers, beautiful pieces of dark granite slabs and engraved markers with the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and some with quotations from the Holy Qur’an. There were several unmarked graves, but I still could not figure out which one was my father’s. In my grief on the day he died and that we buried him, my mind had been a blank on noticing such things.
“That’s normal,” said Valdete, a Brazilian friend, when I tell her later on the phone that I couldn’t remember where we had placed my dad. “You were so upset with grief. It’s normal not to remember such details.”
The Islamic section of the Brasilia cemetery is fenced off from the rest of the cemetery and a large marble pillar with a golden crescent on the top stands at the entrance to the section next to a huge cement sign that says “Cemitério Islamico”. When I had stopped at the cemetery’s administration office at the entrance to ask them if they knew where my father was buried, an employee had handed me a map to the whole place and showed me how to reach the section where Muslims were buried. He was sorry he told me, but only the Islamic Center of Brasilia would be able to tell me where my dad was resting. Ironically, the map showed the “Israelites”, or Jews, as being buried just a short distance away from the Muslims, the bodies of Catholics separating the two.
Just like the Jews, Muslims are not supposed to put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. At the entrance to the cemetery I saw a woman selling a huge wreath of flowers, so I stopped, just out of curiosity, to ask her how much.
“One hundred and fifty reais,” she said, quoting an absurd price. “And I can write anything you want on it.” I politely declined.
The lack of a marker for my dad’s grave does not mean that my mother and I have forgotten him. Far from it. There are pictures of him all over our house, and little reminders that he was with us until just recently. Boxes of his books are in the spare bedroom of my little house, as are brand new pairs of cotton underwear still packaged that my dad used to like to buy in large quantities.
I had been reminding my mother over the past year that we should visit my dad at the cemetery and make sure his grave is okay.
“Don’t say ‘visit’,” my mom finally snapped at me one day in more of a weary tone than an angry one. “He’s gone to another place now and that’s not him in the cemetery.”
I’ve always been the more sentimental one of the family, so worrying if his grave were okay and planning a marker for him came naturally to me.
Not finding my father’s place in the cemetery spared me any tears this time, though I did feel a little tightness in my throat when I stood next to Yasser as he prayed, standing up, for my dad, reciting the Al-Fatiha verse from the Qur’an. I drew comfort from the fact that a blood relative came all the way from Saudi Arabia and was praying for my departed father and his soul.
When my father had died we had washed his body at the Islamic Center and then prayed over his body at the mosque. But there were no relatives there except for myself and my mom. I would have felt much more comfort if all of his relatives had been there to pray and grieve with me.
I now have to find out exactly where he is buried and have a nice granite cover and marker made up for him. That’s the least I can do for his memory.